- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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It didn't take Donna Doyle and me very long to connect on the phone.
We're both parents of student-athletes.
Both of our sons get good grades.
And we've both said the following five words to them multiple times: "Boy, pull your pants up."
"His coach has told him; my sister, my cousins ... We've all said, 'Boy, pull your pants up,'" Doyle said. "I always tell him to 'Listen to your mother because your mother will never steer you wrong.'
"He will tell you this is one of those times he should've listened to his mother."
The "he" Doyle is referring to is DeShon Marman, a University of New Mexico football player who was arrested Wednesday for essentially not pulling up his pants. At least that's how the national headlines are framing the incident. Marman was in San Francisco to attend the funeral of his best friend. Before he boarded his flight on his way back to school, three US Airways employees reportedly asked Marman to pull up his pants.
What happened from there isn't clear.
Police Sgt. Michael Rodriguez said Marman, 20, told airline officials he didn't have to. Marman said he told officials he would as soon as he had a free hand. All we know is one thing led to another and the next thing Marman knows he's calling his mother to tell her he's on his way to jail, not campus.
But the story is a lot more complicated than Marman's sagging pants.
It's about abuse of power and the stupidity of youth.
It's about the subtleness of institutionalized racism and rebels who don't understand the cause.
It's about how an isolated incident that got way out of hand really isn't isolated at all. It's just another example of how young black men continue to struggle to find their place in a world that's indoctrinated to fear them.
Now before white folks get all bent out of shape, I am not trying to blame "the man" for Marman's arrest. If the dude had just pulled his pants up like his momma told him, he probably wouldn't be in this mess.
But the reason that black parents like Doyle are on their sons about something as mundane as pulling up their pants is not that they're too old to understand but rather that they're old enough to understand the world all too well.
This conversation isn't about the race card.
This is about the race façade.
In hip-hop and sports -- the two areas in our culture where black men are easily the most dominant representatives -- projecting a hostile or intimidating caricature is par for the course. (Think mean-mugging athletes in photos as opposed to smiling ones.)
Although I used the word "caricature" to describe this image, capitalism packages it as authentic. Although I use the word "caricature" as though it's an exaggeration, statistics about the number of black men arrested each year reflect a great deal of truth. Although I use the word "caricature" to suggest harmlessness, the reality is that aspects of black culture continuously inject an image of "gangstas" and "thugs" into the veins of mainstream media, making it difficult for anyone to be immune to its subconscious effects.
There is nothing harmless about that.
"Boy, pull your pants up" does not mean that parents just don't understand but rather that parents -- especially black parents -- understand all too well.
"I don't condone it," Doyle said about how her son wears his pants. "But it's a trend, and more than just black kids are doing it. White kids do it. Asian kids do it. But it's the black kids that get seen as criminals.
"We all have to remember as parents when we talk to our children that we are trying to guide them to do what is right and hope they listen and do what's right when we're not there. But children also tend to want to try things their way. It is what it is. Everybody makes mistakes, and this was a mistake for Deshon."
With all of that being said, US Airways owes Marman and his mother an apology if this situation played out as the family describes. No way should a conversation about baggy pants end in the young man's arrest. Trained professionals are supposed to defuse nominal situations like this, not escalate them for arbitrary reasons. An airline spokeswoman said that US Airways has no official dress code, and the phrases she used -- "appropriate manner" and "comfort of all our passengers" -- are about as subjective as "beauty."
Besides, in an incident earlier this year, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington got into a verbal spat with another passenger on a United flight. Huffington was removed from the plane after she ignored the flight attendant's request to turn off all electronic devices, yet she avoided handcuffs. If violation of a Federal Aviation Administration law concerning the safety of the aircraft isn't enough to get someone arrested, how did saggy pants get Marman in handcuffs?
I tell you how.
He's big and black and was dressed in a way that many interpret as thuggish, and his reaction to being asked to pull up his pants did little to help matters.
It's not fair.
But life isn't fair. It just is.
And Marman was lucky that being arrested was all that happened.
Doyle, who said she received a supportive phone call from Lobos coach Mike Locksley, said that when her son told her what happened, she immediately thought about Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old unarmed black man who was facedown when he was shot in the back by a transit police officer in Oakland two years ago.
That, too, started off as a minor altercation but ended with a young man's death.
"I have to be thankful they didn't pull out a Taser or pulled a gun out," the Bay Area resident said. "I have my son here today because it could've been a lot more worse than it is now."
That's why Doyle and I got along so well: We understand the pressure of trying to teach our young black men how to stand up for themselves in a world that's geared to gun them down figuratively and literally.
"Right now we're just trying to get him home and back to school, and then we'll go from there. I just want him back in school where he belongs."
Yes, school is where someone who has academic and athletic scholarships belongs. And I suspect, "up" is where his pants will be from now on.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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